Utilizing Esoteric Traditions of Knowledge

The Delphic Sibyl painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The Delphic Sibyl painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

We enjoy presently a most excellent opportunity in our Western, exoteric educational institutions, of incorporating (perhaps at all levels of instruction) some of the esoteric methods--called esoteric because they require the injunctive practice, instead of merely the descriptive recounting--(esoteric methods) of transmitting venerable teachings concerning the real phenomenon of RENAISSANCE.

One has to practice the discipline to know it, so there are many charlatans and mountebanks, because the exoteric way of just reading ABOUT it won't do. We have a problem of distinguishing between the descriptive and the injunctive modes of language--and further, of applying their corresponding methodologies in teaching.

A recurrent theme in much of my teaching and research is the notion of renavatio or Renaissance not exclusively in the technical sense of art historians, but rather as the principle of rebirth or renewal, distinguished function of ours own psyche, and a fundamental, indeed, necessary experience for the human spirit.

Because, as one of my former teachers, Erwin Panofsky, put it in Renaissance and Renascences (p. 38); "When...the Renaissance, instead of describing the new flowering of art and letters as a mere renovatio resorted to the religious similes of rebirth, illumination and awakening...they experienced a sense of regeneration too radically intense to be expressed in any other language than that of Scripture."

Another wonderful gentleman, Joseph Campbell, defines The Hero With a Thousand Faces as "the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations  [as Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual] to the generally valid, normally human forms. Such a one's visions, ideas and inspirations come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought. Hence they are eloquent, not of the present disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn."

Thus the hero, as eternal man—perfected, unspecific, universal man-- is reborn. And the next solemn task; as all religions, mythologies and folk traditions everywhere teach, is to return to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he (or she) has learned of life renewed.

Now it seems as though the spirit of Michelangelo has returned to us  in his great work of the Sistine Chapel, in what some see as an apocalyptic process of renovatio. Unveiling several centuries worth of sacred censer soot to reveal, transfigured, his vision of humanity, "the prototypes of man in his direct relation to the Divine and the history of God himself." (de Tolnay)



It is perhaps fitting that our First slide is an exoteric view looking very much like a -fortress. Charles de Tolnay reminds us that it was deliberately constructed as such. Its former roof line was crowned by an open battlement, with rooms above the main ceiling to quarter soldiers. The chapel is a principal goal of the tourist, patrician, bourgeoise and vulgar alike; the chapel perennially awash in a sea of school children is the same one in which on occasion the College of Cardinals has met when electing a new Pope.

The magic of the place works not just for the Christian west: Japanese commerce (the Fuji film company) is underwriting the current controversial project to clean and restore Michelangelo's frescoes. Earlier this year, 15 well-known American artists petitioned Pope John Paul II urging "a pause" in the project, as "a precautionary measure (in order to avoid what Columbia University Professor James Beck fears might be an "indiscriminate removal of veils of tone applied by
Michelangelo himself.") A record of the pre-restoration state has been photographed by Takashi Okamura, Vatican Frescoes, (Abbeville & Kodansha).

The currant Vatican project to restore the frescoes, under Gianluigi Colalucci, will cost $10 million and will take ten years longer to complete than it originally took Michelangelo to paint the ceiling.



Consecrated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15, 1483 by Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere, the architect was Giovannino de' Dolci. The altar was by Perugino; quattrocenta frescoes and tapestries wer by him and Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Signorelli. Its first ceiling was painted by Piar Matteo d'Amelia, a starry sky. Restorations of the vault were made in 1504 and 1508.

Michelangelo's work embodies a bridging of the esoteric and the exoteric, as does all great art, all art of genuine inspiration. The Sistine Chapel is almost universally regarded as one of the culminating achievements of art--of mankind's attempt, somehow, to translate a mystical, transcendent vision into material forms.



The Sistine Chapel contains two great works by Michelangelo: the Ceiling (1509-1512) and the Last Judgment (1533-1540), unveiled during the Vigil of All Saints, Oct. 31, 1541 - (Haloween). It includes a self-portrait, skin held by St. Bartholomew,

"Quanto voi bells foste a quant 'io lasso"
(How beautiful you were and how sad I was)

Michelangelo himself embodied many of the social and psychic anomalies traditionally associated with genius regarded as Il divino while still living, yet was beset with venal and unending worries about money, lawsuits jealousies and being kidnapped to work on some projects.

Michelangelo was both a painter and a sculptor, the visionary artist of the Sistine Ceiling and the Last Judgment and the practical designer of military fortifications for his beloved city of Florence. Had he done none of this Michelangelo would still be renowned in Italy as one of its great Neoplatonic thinkers and as a major poet in vernacular Italian.



Contrary to all previous Renaissance systems of ceiling decoration, Michelangelo was inspired by the real shape and mass of the vault. There are three zones:

  • Lunettes & spandrels - vicissitudes of human condition
  • Architectural skeleton - Prophets
  • Nine scenes (prototypes  & God)
    --Four Fall of Man over laymen
    --God the Father creating Eve over cancellata
    --The next three histories, ove quadratura of Cardinals
    --Jeremiah over Papal throne, (the last bay + Jonah over Altar, the key is found in the opus Alexandrinum mosaic floor)

Here is art historian Charles de Tolnay on the second zone, an except from his marvelous study of Michelangelo published by Princeteon:

"An important part of Michelangelo's grand scheme for the Sistine ceiling involves the Prophets and Sibyls. It is  the spiritualis ignis which illuminates the total existence, physical and spiritual, of these seers who, enlightened, are now reborn. It is a rentovatio brought about by the contemplation of truth. ..because only he who is newly born can see God and the truth, (John 3.3: 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee. Except a man be born anew again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.') A wind accompanies the rebirth (John 3:8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it qoeth: so is everyone that is torn of the spirit.').
          But Michelangelo conceived the Sibyls in contrast to the Prophets; in the men he emphasized intellectual concentration and rebirth...in the women he accentuated indecision, passivity and ambiguity. The woman,  nearer to nature and to the earth, does not know the sudden spiritual renovatio of the man; she undergoes only a slow transformation and remains basically herself. Through this connection with the earth, she sees approaching disaster more clearly."


In de Tolnay's "Notes on the Individual Sibyls" he quotes a passage from Virgil in discussing the furor divinus expressed in the gaze of the Delphian Sibyl. He mentions, however, that "Virgil speaks in truth about Cumaea." This seems a curious transfer, and for me has long been something of a riddle. To which Sibyl does the oracular gaze properly belong? To them both? And do we have any clues as to what it might indicate about the methods of divination?

Also popular was the Italian belief that because of their "pagan ignorance," the Sibyls have only a limited prophetio faculty. That is why they are arranged in a "decrescendo of inspiration" in contrast to the Prophets.


Fontenrose (1973) differentiates Plato' s concept of prophetic mania (Phaedrus 244 245 265ab), mistranslated into Latin as insania or vercordia from the Greek meaning of transport, rapture, inspiration and ecstasy. But Pythia's mania was Apollonian, not Dionysiac.



The Cumaean Sibyl's association with the glyph of the Labyrinth is provided by Virgil at the beginning of Book 6 when Aeneas studies the gates of the temple built by Daedalus and dedicated to Apollo upon landing at Cumae on his flight from Crete. There were represented principal scenes from the myth: the death of Androgeos, the sending of Athenian youth as sacrificial reparations "and the Urn from which their lots had just been drawn." Pasiphae, the Bull and the Minotaur, and "the Cretan building in all its elaboration, with the wandering track which might not be unraveled."
          Daedalus is also associated in mythic lore with the island of Sardinia through labyrinth glyphs found there, before he "in flight from the tyranny of Minos—glided away toward the chill north by tracks unknown." Indeed the quite specific glyph of the labyrinth has been found all over Northern Europe.


The epic and ritual wanderings of the sacred solar king follow the Pattern of comedy and the pilgrimage: they stop at the appointed places and always return to their (approximate) starting point. Such a path generates the fundamental glyph of a closed circle, always and ever the symbol of the sun--an emblem of closure and cycles, rebirth, renewal, and resurrection. But the labyrinth in its classic Minoan form is a one-way path, and unlike more complex mazes offers not a choice among forking paths. The only option is whether to read it from outside in, or from inside out. If the former then the story is a tragedy: the king must die, minotaurs and ritual regicide. But the story of Theseus turns around at the center and then proceeds with inevitable linearity until (after 36 turns) the path may proceed to emerge into unbounded space. This of course, for both Theseus as the mythological founder of Attic civilization and for Aeneas as his counterpart for the Latins, is represented as the Quest, the glorious process such that having once been initiated, presumably goes on forever without end (a complement of tragedy, since it is comedy that has closure).

Both Daedalus.. and Aeneas followed wandering tracks symbolized by the labyrinth. just as the Hopi people of the American Southwest use the identical glyph to symbolize the primordial wanderings of their tribe after their emergence into this present (third) world. And in addition to the manifold classical examples, there is the Harrowing of Hell by Jesus celebrated in the rites of the Orthodox church, the tradition gf the Prayer of Jesus and the practice of the Psychomachia.


Through Aeneas and the syncretic Virgilian myth of his wandering path, the labyrinth in turn suggests a connection with the "triumphs" of the Renaissance courts, such as the wedding celebrations of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti, or the triumphs of Battista Sforza and Federigo di Montefeltro in Urbino. These triumphs revived the idea of the ancient Roman triumphal entry, which may have been inherited from the Etruscans (along with a penchant for elaborate dinner parties and a knack for civil engineering projects such as street paving, bridges, aquaducts, sewers and sanitation facilities). Ultimately the triumph, as the calendrical festivals featuring parades derive from the spinning of the wheel of time and the wanderings of the sacred solar king, epitomized for the Romans Virgil's account of Aeneas' epic escape from Troy.


James Ackerman (my first teacher of Renaissance art history) has shown that Michelangelo's 12-pointed interwoven star pavement of the Capitoline Hill was a deliberate iconographic link with Delphi, each of the points corresponding with one of the zodiacal signs in the Greek geometrical, ecliptic system of astronomy. The pavement swells in a subtle mound to symbolize an omphalos, the navel or center of the world. The Capitoline hill was the ancient site terminus of triumphal marches, and that is why Michelangelo, in the spirit of renovatio, had installed in the center of the pavement that magnificent surviving authentic Roman bronze imperial eqestrian sculptural portrait of Marcus Aurelius. Never mind that Michelangelo and his contemporaries erroneously thought it to be Antoninus Pious.

The parade was also the descent of Theseus into the Labyrinth at  Knossos. In the British Isles the labyrinth is represented in a game of turf mazes which may be called "Troy Town" and enjoy intimate associations with the Morris Dance and Easter, or more anciently with the vernal equinox. The erotic weaving dance of the May pole as well suggests the geranos, the crane dance which according to Plutarch, Theseus introduced into Delos, representing the coiling and uncoiling of the labrynthine path. "Cranes make their spectacular  migrations from the Tropic of Cancer to the Arctic Circle and back twice yearly, flying in chevron formation with loud trumpetings at an enormous height and this must have attached them to the Hyperborean cult as messengers flying to the other world which lies at the back of the North Wind." (Robert Graves, The White Goddess, P. 233)


If we are to follow Robert Graves, this labyrinth of associations goes tack to the Feast of Passover, or pesach, and to various archaic myths of solar kings; on Delos associated with cranes, and hence with the geranos dance of modern Greece; elsewhere imitating the mating dance of a hobbled partridge, as shown on a 7th century B.C. Etruscan wine jar, the famous Tragliatella vase.


At the same time the Renaissance courts were reviving this archaic and perhaps archetypal tradition--around 1450, as Elizabeth Eisenstein makes the case--the printing revolution transformed Europe. Therefore, the triumphs of public entertainment became the trumps of the Tarot cards, ancestors of the modern bridge deck. The structure and function of the Tarot pack reinforce its ­similarities with magical journeys to (and from) the Underworld. The Tarot cards may be regarded as comprising a loose-leaf book, as all of antiquity agreed that Cumaea's oracles were loose-leafed--hence Dante's famous imagery in the last Canto of Paradaiso.

Why should the Cumaean Sibyl be "reading with fear and distrust the ambiguous oracles in her (own) book?" Other anomalies confuse the issue. For example., antiquity agreed that Cumaea's oracles were loose-leafed but Michelangelo shows her with a bound volume.


We know that the archaic accounts of sacred solar kings eventually became secularized into representations of the calendrical round, the cosmic circle of zodiacal constellations, symbolized by the circle and concretely manifested as the wheel. (Hamlet's Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend).


Some say that wheels adorned the front of temples as prophetic or prophylactic instruments, and that at Delphi a wheel was used for drawing lots that established the order by which the oracle was consulted. This is thought to be an ancestor of our modern roulette wheel--the one with 3 spaces (either black or red) into which the little ball may tumble. From one to three green spaces (marked 0, 00, or 000 on the gambling wheels from Monte Carlo to Las Vegas) provide not only the house edge but also a clue to how the numbers are generated. The modern roulette wheel clearly derives from the 36 values obtainable by casting two dice (the combinations of the ordered set). Whatever the origin of sacred wheels of remote antiquity (as possibly at Delphi), the Wheel of Fortune -Famed in medieval manuscript illustrations, which appears as one of the trump cards of the Major Arcana in the Tarot pack--or Vanna White's Wheel of Fortune--for that matter owes its aleatory origins to dice.


We know that both cards and Whell of Fortune were generated with, and historically preceded by dice. The casting of cubic dice and the Tarot pack, whether regarded as within the practicing esoteric tradition) to be at least one version of the Book of God, or by us a reconstitution of Cumaea's windblown, scattered leaves, or again simply as modern playing cards.


Hermes gets the credit for having inventing dice, supposedly fashioned from the astragaloi, or knucklebones of sheep or goats--but perhaps even earlier of the more nearly cubic heel bones of the boibalis, or Libyian antelope. But for more on this we would have to consult the Libyian Sibyl. Graves, (The White Goddess, p. 331-2) relates the tali or dice to divination and to the alphabet and says the three  were common in antiquity.

Greek astragaloi dice were approximately rectangular in shape, but would not be likely to land on their ends, one of which was pointed and called kerais, the other was unnamed. Only four sides were marked, of which two were broad and two narrow. Of the broad sides one was convex (pranes), the other concave (uptia); these were marked with the values 3 & 4. The narrow sides could be differentiated because one was flat (chion) marked 1; the other was indented and at the rarest was considered the luckiest (koon) and marked 6, Thus we see that it was the underside of the die that counted, not the upper side. But as dice assumed a regularized cubic shape, all six sides would be marked.

Fontenrose (1972) p. 222 "the evidence for a lot Oracle indicates the use of pebbles (osephoi) in the tripod basin." In his compendious studies of the Delphic myth and its origin, Joseph Fontenrose draws attention to the account in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes of divination by psephoi, mantic pebbles or lots. This was the only pre-Apollonian (that is, around B.C. 750) oracular activity Fontenrose acknowledges at Delphi. Hermes learns the technique from three honey-eating Parnassian nymphs, called the Thriai, and where should he learn it but in the Corycian cave that Fontenrose once considered as a candidate for the primordial site of the Delphic oracle. We know that Hermes gets credit for inventing dice, supposedly fashioned from the astragaloi or knucklebones of hermetic sheep, which may have been the original "pebbles" of the Corycian cave.

There were various forms of dice used in antiquity" icosahedral dice (as in Dungeons and Dragons) as well as six-sided cubic dice marked only on four faces were used in ancient Greece. But figuring with a cubic die on which all six faces are distinguished, there are obviously six possibilities for each cast. Not quite so obviously, with two such dice, there are 21 different combinations that can be obtained, assuming the dice are so similar as to be indistinguishable (what mathematicians would call the unordered set). With dice of different colors, it can be demonstrated that there are in fact 36 different combinations (the ordered set).



We must recall that the traditional pack of Tarot cards is composed of 72 cards. First there is one card that is usually unnumbered, or marked with a "0", in certain respects like the Modern joker. There are 56 cards arranged into four suits and referred to as the Minor Arcana, and there are 21 cards, the "trumps," that are referred to as the Major Arcana. This produces a conventional total of 78 cards which as it transpires may not be quite a full deck--but that is another part of the story. The (unordered) set of combinations possible to obtain by casting three dice is 56, which indicates correspondences for each card of the Minor Arcana. The ordered set of combinations with three dice is 216--and this is a "magic number" famed in song and lore, as documented by Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God, but it does not apparently have anything to do with Tarot cards. With two dice, however, we can see that the ordered set of 36 combinations corresponds to the numbered parts of a roulette wheel, as well as with the 36 turns of the labyrinth such as Aeneas saw inscribed on the side wall of the Sibyl's grotto at Cumae, and the same as has been commemorated in the logo, and published on the cover of Daedalus, the quarterly Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The unordered set of 21 combinations corresponds to the 21 cards of the Major Arcana, and commemorated in the modern gambling game of blackjack, or "21".



What an exquisite coincidence then, that the original Greek alphabetic writing--in the oldest extant archeological example we have, inscribed on the shoulder of that wine jug prize for a dance contest around B.C. 725--was a distinct and characteristically Cumaean version of the Greek alphabet, composed, not of 24 letters as elsewhere but of just 21 letters! The very earliest epigraphical evidence for alphabetic writing is a hexameter line or so in Greek, scratched on the neck of a wine Jug made at Cumae (apparently in the context of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll). We must seek, it appears, some objective relationship between each of the cards and a specific cast of the dice, or with a specific number corresponding to the value of that throw. This suggests an integrated cabalistic system. Such systems are perhaps part of the lore of all written language; they are well-known and still widely used in the modern Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, and presumably were also in the Semitic language of the ancient Phoenecians. It now appears probable that quite a bit more cultural property might have seen transmitted between Phoenecian merchants and their Greek contemporaries who copied and adapted early writing skills than we have hitherto imagined.


Again, it seems strange that Ovid has the Cumaean Sibyl say to Aeneas (in Gelding's beautiful translation):

"The day will come that length of tyme shall make my body small, 
And little of my withered limbes, shall leave or naught at all."

In fact, she is to wither away and fade much as Alice's evanescent conversationalist the Cheshire Cat:

"So sore I shall be altered. And then shall no mannes eye
Discern mee. Only by my voyce I shall be knowen.
--[Metamorphoses, XIV. 174 ff,]

Nevertheless, Michelangelo portrays her with the hulking shoulders worthy of a first-round NFL draft pick.


In the Aeneid, the etymology of "Avernus." is given (falsely, according to Graves) as a-ornis, or birdless, just after a brace of doves happens to lead Aeneas directly to the magical Golden Bough [VI. 187 ff.]. But these doves, as it turns out, may provide another clue to links with Delphica, and as well with Dodona and the temple of Ammon at Siwa. (See Peter Tompkins, Secrets of the Great Pyramid).

Kurt von Meier
Circa 1980